We all know that exercise is a key part of leading a healthy lifestyle. Exercise is known to reduce inflammation, lower your risk of heart disease, aid in maintaining a healthy weight, just to name a few of the endless benefits. But exercise isn’t just great for your body and the organs we often think of, like your heart. Studies continue to demonstrate the numerous benefits exercise has on your brain—both its physical health and your overall mental wellbeing.
Improves memory and brain function
Exercise benefits the brain overall in both direct and indirect ways. It can help reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors. Indirectly, exercise can improve your mood and sleep, as well as and reducing stress and anxiety. Studies have also shown that people who exercise regularly have greater brain volume in the prefrontal and medial temporal cortexes, which control thinking and memory, than those that don’t.
Triggers brain cell growth
One of the most incredible effects exercise can have on your brain is its ability to trigger brain cell development. Until recently, scientists believed the brain was the only organ that didn’t grow new cells. This does in part makes sense, since we need our brains to be pretty stable/unchanging in order to keep our memories intact and to keep us who we are. However recent studies have made it clear that the brain can, in fact, grow new neurons, in a process called neurogenesis. And what seems to spur the growth of new neurons is aerobic exercise. The area of the brain that seems most capable of growing new cells actually the key region for learning and memory—the hippocampus. This is also the region that’s known to “shrink” in depression and dementia—so potentially having some control over its health is exciting.
Helps treat and prevent depression
Recent studies have shown that exercise can actually be as effective as other forms of treatment on some types of depression. This is great news for the many people that will face some form of the crippling disorder in their lifetime.
Studies have consistently shown that not only can physical activity help treat depression, but that a lack of activity is actually a big risk factor for it. This effect is a result, in part, of serotonin, which is the brain chemical that’s targeted with some antidepressants. The difficult part about suggesting exercise to help treat depression is that depression can make doing so nearly impossible. Someone battling depression may have difficulty even getting out of bed, much less to the gym. However if this initial hurdle can be overcome, even a few minutes every day can make a massive impact.
Reduces dementia risk
Perhaps one of the best reasons to exercise is the connection between regular activity and dementia later in life. Studies have shown that people who exercise are at a reduced risk of developing diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s. And this benefit can come into play even if you start exercising later in life. People who took up regular activity at an older age, when tested, showed signs of an increase in brain volume, rather than a decrease, which is normal part of aging.